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A power of attorney and a guardianship are tools that help someone act in your stead if you become incapacitated. With a power of attorney, you choose who you want to act for you. In a guardianship proceeding, the court chooses who will act as guardian.
Power of attorney
A power of attorney is an estate planning document that allows a person you appoint to act in place of you for financial purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated. You may limit a power of attorney to a very specific transaction or you may grant full power to someone over all of your affairs. For more information about powers of attorney, click here.
If an adult becomes incapable of making responsible decisions due to a mental disability, the court may appoint a substitute decision maker, often called a "guardian," but in some states called a "conservator" or other term. Guardianship is a legal relationship between the guardian and the person who because of incapacity is no longer able to take care of his or her own affairs (the "ward").
The guardian can be authorized to make legal, financial, and health care decisions for the ward. Depending on the terms of the guardianship and state practices, the guardian may or may not have to seek court approval for various decisions. In many states, a person appointed only to handle finances is called a "conservator."
Because guardianship involves a profound loss of freedom and dignity, state laws require that guardianship be imposed only when less restrictive alternatives, such as a power of attorney, have been tried and proven to be ineffective.
For more information on guardianships, click here.